Changing Deeply Held Beliefs

Everyone has beliefs, and our beliefs are used to inform our actions.  Our beliefs can be well supported or not.  Well supported, or “justified” beliefs tend to be backed with good evidence and reasoning.  Poorly supported beliefs are too often supported with wishful or “magical” thinking, or lack proof altogether.

Poorly supported beliefs that lead to actions which adversely affect us all are a serious concern for everyone.  Too often bad beliefs are used to ethically justify subduing or eliminating some basic human rights.

"Conversation" by Pierre-Auguste Renoir
“Conversation” by Pierre-Auguste Renoir

All too often attempts to persuade people that they should give up a poorly supported belief go nowhere.  A person who seems otherwise rational will seem to become more convinced that some bit of reasoning supports their position, even when it is demonstrated that it does not.  For example, when given the problems with the Cosmological Argument, a Christian or a Muslim or a Hindu will too often instead believe that this is an even better argument for Yahweh, Allah, or Vishnu.

This “doubling down” is known as the “Backfire Effect,” a term coined by  Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler in a study published in the journal Political Behavior.  (Link to PDF)  This term refers to the observation that a person’s established poorly supported beliefs do not change in the face of contradictory evidence, but instead become stronger.  A person’s confidence that their beliefs are correct will often increase in the face of opposing facts.

This is especially frustrating for skeptics who state that they will re-evaluate their beliefs when presented with sufficient evidence.  And while secular and skeptical people are also susceptible to poorly reasoned beliefs it is also true that, “We eat our own!”  Meaning that we tend to correct our peers who hold irrational beliefs.  We are often, ah… emphatic about it.

Unfortunately this method of correcting bad beliefs is useful only in skeptical and scientific communities.  It isn’t very conducive to actually changing minds in the general population, especially when these attempts actually strengthen a poorly supported belief.

Over the last few months I have encountered several people and groups using a way of communicating that seems to be making a real difference.  This new form of communication is subtle and works toward urging people to be more open and more accepting to justified beliefs.  Instead of requiring a binary flip between a poorly supported belief and a well supported belief, these methods work toward decreasing confidence in bad beliefs.

"Manual For Creating Atheists" - artworkThe first of these is Peter Boghossian, and his book, “A Manual for Creating Atheists“.  Dr. Boghossian is the Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Portland State University who does research in critical thinking, philosophy of education and moral reasoning.  In his book, Boghossian talks about “street epistemology”, which is a set of techniques used by secular people to get religious people to think more critically about the beliefs that they hold.  Instead of presenting facts that directly contradict a person’s beliefs, this book guides people in having low pressure interventions that act as a sort of “treatment” to increase the likelihood that the subject changes their behavior.

Anthony Magnabosco is a skeptic and agnostic atheist who lives in San Antonio, Texas.  He also practices street epistemology and films his interactions which he then publishes on Youtube.  He’s been doing this since early 2014.  In his Youtube videos, Magnabosco impliments Boghossian’s teachings.  At the beginning of these interactions Magnabosco first gets his subjects to quantify their belief based upon a scale.  He does so again at the end of their conversation to see if their confidence in their beliefs has changed.  Frequently, this confidence does decrease, and in many cases you can actually see a person become thoughtful and introspective as they consider the conversation.

“A Manual for Creating Atheists” and Magnabosco’s Youtube channel are excellent resources, but it is difficult for many to practice these techniques an become comfortable with them.  To address this, Dr. Boghossian, along with other contributors, have created a downloadable smartphone app called, “Atheos” which will train rational people in street epistemology methods.  This app, like the Youtube videos, teach you to be effective, and show when you should walk away from an interaction.

Another technique I’ve encountered is called, “Deep Canvassing”.  I learned about this technique on the “You Are Not So Smart” (YANSS) podcast hosted by David McRaney.  YANSS is an excellent podcast that I recommend to all skeptics.

McRaney investigated the results of the Deep Canvassing study that was created by the Leadership LAB.  The Leadership LAB is a program of the Los Angeles LGBT Center.  This study focused on ways to learn how to change people’s minds, scientifically.

This study was created to explore how to change minds after the passage of the Proposition 8 anti-LGBT legislation in California.  Since 2008, over 1,200 volunteers working with the Leadership LAB have been having door to door conversations with people as they investigated ways to reduce transphobia and anti-LGBT prejudice.  They made note of what worked, and of what didn’t work.

The Leadership LAB’s study, after some initial unfortunate scientific fraud unrelated to their study, was eventually published in the journal Science.  The “persuasion model” of this study is based on the idea that listening and “relentless curiosity” are keys in persuading someone to change their mind.  The conversations are honest, open, and emotional.

Unlike Boghossian and others, these techniques have not (yet) been turned into a set of instructions.  Instead the Leadership LAB mentors those who are interested in persuading others, and in delivering effective messages that help change minds.  But Like Boghossian and Magnabosco, this method realizes that a binary change in belief may not be immediately possible and instead seeks to reduce hostility and opposition toward the LGBT community.  And the results, and follow up studies show that these changes in attitude and belief are persistent.

So what does this mean for atheists?

We shouldn’t think of these methods as “evangelism”.  They are not designed to “win people over to atheism”.  Instead we should think of these methods as a way of respectfully “treating” people for the malady of poorly supported beliefs.

Respect is important.  Every person automatically deserves an initial amount of respect, and further respect is earned (or lost) based on that person’s actions and words.  We should strive to treat individuals with the dignity and respect and compassion.  Compassion, openness, and a willingness to engage at an intimate, emotional level are also necessary in these methods of changing attitude and belief.

At the same time, beliefs, hypothesis, world views, religions, ideas and philosophies do NOT automatically deserve respect.  I think it is intellectually honest to treat all such thoughts with initial doubt in proportion to the premise.  Even when a hypothesis goes through the scientific rigor to become a well-supported theory, it is still a good idea to continue to treat it with skepticism as part of the process of continuing to support or eventually overturn that theory.

Some beliefs, and the people who hold them, are dangerous and must be countered.  This shows that we need more than one kind of engagement.

We need “Firebrand Atheists” who are willing to vocally challenge bad beliefs and those who support them.  We need people who stand up before a court and explain why religiously-based legislation is harmful, or anti-human rights.  We need people who call out religious leadership whenever they are being dishonest or hypocritical.  And we need those who stand up and speak for those who are unable to speak for themselves.

But we also need those who are willing to have one-on-one conversations with people who hold their beliefs due to magical thinking, who are, perhaps unknowingly, doing harm to others through actions and attitudes based on bad beliefs.  We need to engage these people, treat them with compassion, and move them closer toward a well supported worldview while realizing that immediate and dramatic change is probably not very likely.

And we need atheists who can do both of these things, we need atheists who are willing to work toward developing a whole toolbox of methods that allow us to engage others and help them develop better beliefs.